The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology have published a note which considers whether the current age of criminal responsibility is appropriate by exploring international legal standards, scientific research on mental and moral development and alternative approaches to dealing with children in conflict with the law.
The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. This is the lowest in Europe and one of the lowest worldwide. Despite not having many of the freedoms available to adults, 10 year olds are deemed, in the eyes of the law, to be as accountable. The number of children prosecuted in the last decade has greatly reduced. Of those children who are arrested and / or prosecuted a disproportionate number of them are Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME), Looked After or suffering from mental illness, learning disabilities or communication difficulties. In 2007 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child declared an ACR of less than 12 years ‘not to be internationally acceptable’. A Private Members’ Bill proposing to increase the ACR to 12 years is being debated in the House of Lords. At the second reading the Government responded that the current ACR was appropriate.
A wide body of accepted research in to brain development now recognises that the adolescent brain is physiologically still developing. A lot of the risk taking behaviour which leads children and young people to offend diminishes as they mature. Children’s capacities and autonomy grow as they are given increasing rights and responsibilities. Children are given little legal responsibility until their late teens and yet are deemed to have criminal responsibility aged 10. Criminal responsibility implies having the capacities to participate in a criminal trial. Although such capacities are laid out in case law relating to effective participation and fitness to plead, there is no statutory requirement to assess them in children.
Evidence shows that criminalising children does not reduce reoffending and can be harmful. All children cautioned or convicted acquire a criminal record, with long-term implications.
This note presents a wealth of evidence in favour of raising the age of criminal responsibility, a measure which seems necessary to enable us to comply with our duty to safeguard the welfare of children. This well-researched document contains references to several reports and pieces of research which will be of interest to youth justice practitioners.